Author Archives: Jennifer Mitchell, CAE

ATPE submits interim testimony to House committees on COVID-19, school funding, and more

As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, several Texas legislative committees have solicited written feedback from stakeholders this year in lieu of taking public testimony at in-person hearings this year. House and Senate committees have been tasked by Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, respectively, with studying interim charges on a host of issues and offering recommendations to the 87th Texas Legislature that will convene in January 2021.

The House Public Education Committee recently issued formal requests for information on a handful of its interim charges. Today ATPE submitted the following responses, sharing our members’ feedback on these issues:

  • Interim Charge 1[A] asks the committee to monitor implementation of House Bill (HB) 3, the comprehensive school finance bill passed in 2019 that resulted in compensation increases for many teachers. In response to this charge, the committee is focusing specifically on “pay raises districts have provided to staff and the various approaches adopted to differentiate these salary increases according to experience.” ATPE’s submission highlights the importance of elevating educators’ pay as a means of raising the prestige of the profession. We are recommending that lawmakers ensure funding is in place to maintain educator salary increases under HB 3 and encourage districts to distribute any additional funding in the form of permanent raises. ATPE also shares our feedback on ongoing implementation of the bill’s merit pay program known as the Teacher Incentive Allotment.
  • With Interim Charge 1[B], the committee seeks feedback on school accountability, assessment, interventions, and school district-charter partnerships. ATPE’s submission includes general observations about the state’s A-F accountability rating system and various bills passed in recent years that have affected student testing and the manner in which school districts and campuses are rated. We highlight our concerns about the use of data derived from the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) and other tests during the 2020-21 school year while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the educational environment.
  • Interim Charges 1[C], 1[D], 1[E], and 1[F] all sought input on school safety and mental health initiatives spurred by legislation in recent years. ATPE submitted feedback on these charges emphasizing the heightened importance of health and safety measures being prioritized amid the pandemic, the need for continued funding of these initiatives, the vital role of school counselors and other mental health professionals employed in public schools, and the recommendation that classroom teachers be involved in task forces that are studying mental health issues for students.
  • The committee solicited information about digital learning with its Interim Charge 2. ATPE’s response answers the committee’s questions about barriers to providing a digital learning environment for all students and determining where gaps exist in internet coverage.
  • The committee also sought information for an interim study of COVID-19. ATPE’s submission for this interim charge addresses very specific question posed by the committee: “Are Texas public schools ensuring the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff during the 2020 Fall Semester? ATPE shares insights gleaned from a member survey we conducted last week through the Advocacy Central section of our website on this topic, along with concerns we have heard from educators dealing with the pandemic. Safety protocols, workload impacts, educator retention, and the difficulty of adhering to rigid high-stakes testing requirements amid the pandemic are some of the concerns highlighted in our written input.

The House Appropriations Committee similarly solicited written input from stakeholders regarding its interim charges. ATPE submitted comments today to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Article III, which oversees the state budget for public education. Our input focused on the costs of implementing HB 3 and areas where the state could save money during the COVID-19 pandemic, including halting charter expansions and pursuing a second-year waiver of federal testing and accountability requirements.

ATPE urges Congress to keep private school vouchers out of COVID-19 relief legislation

On Sept. 8, Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate shared their latest proposal for COVID-19 relief legislation, termed the “Delivering Immediate Relief to America’s Families, Schools and Small Businesses Act.” The Republican-led Senate and Democratic-led House have been deadlocked since May on negotiations for additional relief from the pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) shared details of the new GOP proposal Tuesday and announced his intent for the Senate to pass the bill by the end of this week. However, amid criticism that the bill does not go far enough to help those affected by the pandemic, the legislation was considered highly unlikely to move forward, and a preliminary vote taken today in the Senate fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to proceed.

The latest Senate bill would shield businesses against lawsuits related to COVID-19 and spend $500 billion on initiatives that would include debt forgiveness for the postal service, additional paycheck protection loans for small businesses, partial continuation of enhanced unemployment benefits, and funding for coronavirus vaccine development and testing. Schools would be eligible for additional funds under the bill, too, but the Senate proposal reserves two-thirds of the K-12 money for schools operating in person. Unlike the most recent U.S. House proposal, states would see no additional direct funding that could be used to offset anticipated budget cuts in public education and other areas.

To the dismay of the education community, the Senate GOP bill also calls for funneling $5 billion in tax dollars toward private school voucher programs favored by the Trump administration and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The proposal would offer federal tax credits to bolster state voucher programs and fund private school tuition “scholarships.” Additionally, the bill would expand access to 529 savings accounts, typically reserved for college costs, to pay for private and home schooling. The voucher language in the McConnell bill mirrors similar legislation filed by U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), and Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) to subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling costs with tax credits and other federally funded incentives.

Responding to Tuesday’s announcement, ATPE issued a statement criticizing the inclusion of the controversial private school voucher funding in a bill that purports to provide COVID-19 relief. ““Congress should be focusing on helping our nation’s public schools that are dealing with unprecedented challenges,” said ATPE State President Jimmy Lee. “We cannot afford to divert our limited resources from public schools to private entities  during a global crisis,” Lee added. View ATPE’s full press statement here.

Betsy DeVos tells states not to expect student testing waivers

Betsy DeVos

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sent a letter to the top school official in every state today regarding federal requirements for student testing in the 2020-21 school year. States requested and the secretary granted a waiver of testing mandates for 2019-20 when the novel coronavirus forced schools to abruptly shut down during the spring. However, DeVos makes it clear in her Sept. 3 letter that the Trump administration has no intention of waiving the testing requirements again this year.

Below is an excerpt from the letter in which DeVos claims there is broad support for testing and urges the states to demonstrate their “resolve” in these challenging times by continuing to administer the assessments to students:

“Several of your colleagues recently inquired about the possibility of waivers to relieve states of the requirement to administer standardized tests during School Year (SY) 2020-2021. You will recall that, within a very short time, waivers were granted to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the Bureau of Indian Education this past spring following the declaration of a national emergency. That was the right call, given the limited information available about the virus at the time and the need to stop its spread, as well as the practical realities limiting the administration of assessments. However, it is now our expectation that states will, in the interest of students, administer summative assessments during the 2020-2021 school year, consistent with the requirements of the law and following the guidance of local health officials. As a result, you should not anticipate such waivers being granted again.”

A growing number of elected officials on both sides of the political spectrum, parent groups, and education associations including ATPE have called for student testing requirements to be waived in 2020-21. As we have previously reported here on Teach the Vote, Texas Governor Greg Abbott removed a few of the high stakes attached to STAAR test results this year but has not shown interest in a broader waiver of testing requirements, despite the fact that many schools have had to delay the start of the new school year. The ATPE House of Delegates also passed a resolution this summer calling for a waiver of STAAR and TELPAS requirements this year due to the ongoing negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education system.

While there has been widespread bipartisan support for cutting back on student testing, the general election coming up in November will play a large role in determining whether high-stakes tests are actually administered this year and used for such purposes as school accountability grades and determining teachers’ evaluations and compensation. Stay tuned to our Teach the Vote blog for updates.

BREAKING: Schools receive updated TEA guidance on closures, reflecting new advice from attorney general

Earlier today, Texas Attorney General (AG) Ken Paxton issued a press release sharing a letter he penned to Stephenville Mayor Doug Svien about local authorities’ power (or lack thereof) to restrict schools from reopening for on-campus instruction. Though non-binding, Paxton’s letter cautions that local health authorities cannot issue closure orders or other restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic that would conflict with either state law or Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders already in effect. Paxton then argues that orders recently issued by some local health authorities conflict with both.

The AG’s letter notes that a handful of cities and counties — mostly located in urban areas more acutely affected by rising numbers of COVID-19 infections — have recently issued orders to restrict area schools from opening their doors prior to a particular date. Paxton counters with advice that such “blanket quarantine orders” issued as a prophylactic measure are prohibited. Only actual infection on the campus, according to the AG’s reasoning, would warrant the issuance of a local order to close the school to on-campus instruction. “To the extent a local health authority seeks to employ section 81.085 to order closure of a school, the authority would need to demonstrate reasonable cause to believe the school, or persons within the school, are actually contaminated by or infected with a communicable disease,” writes Paxton in the letter.

On the heels of the AG’s letter, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) updated its “SY 20-21 Public Health Planning Guidance” document that was issued July 17, 2020, with a newer version today, along with an “Attendance and Enrollment FAQ” document that is similarly revised.

In the latest guidance, TEA explains that because of the AG’s interpretation, “a blanket order closing schools does not constitute a legally issued closure order for purposes of funding solely remote instruction.” This differs from prior TEA guidance which assured schools they would continue to receive funding if they were forced to close by a local order. Now those closure orders would have to meet the additional hurdles outlined by AG Paxton, including a vague requirement of being based on “reasonable cause to believe the school, or persons within the school, are actually contaminated by or infected with a communicable disease.” Notwithstanding the AG’s letter, TEA also clarifies in the newest documents out today that schools may still be funded while operating remotely if they are doing so under other permissible conditions, such as during the allowed four-week transition period that was announced in the earlier TEA guidance.

Many Texas public schools have already announced plans to operate virtually for the first few weeks of their school year while preparing for a return to on-campus instruction. School districts may also request a one-time extension of the state-sanctioned four-week transition period if voted upon by their board of trustees. It is believed that most of the existing local health orders restricting a return to campus would overlap with the four-to-eight-week transition period already authorized by TEA, making it unlikely that a school district would have to risk a loss of funding because of a delay in returning to campus at the beginning of the school year. Once the transition period expires, however, school districts may find themselves in a precarious position if their local health officials’ recommendations conflict with state orders in effect at the time. TEA also points out that school districts have their power to set their own calendars, which some may find a need to revise.

TEA’s new resources shared today also include a “Guidebook for Public Health Operations,” which includes protocols schools may use in responding to an lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 and recommendations for collaborating with local health officials to discuss and conduct planning exercises ahead of the new school year:

“School systems, local health departments and local health authorities should make contact prior to the start of school and conduct a tabletop exercise (detailed at the end of this document) to determine how they will work together. …  As part of the exercise, these parties will determine how to best work together in the instance of a positive case.”

While ATPE is pleased to see the suggestions for collaborative planning to respond to the COVID-19 infections within a local school community that are likely to occur in the near future, it would have been more helpful for schools to have received this guidance from the state earlier in the summer rather than within days or weeks of starting the new school year. The new TEA guidebook also adds a somewhat perfunctory statement that local “planning efforts should also engage parents and teachers,” which ATPE has urged for months now in our recommendations to local and state officials.

We are aware that many school district leaders are grappling with a maze of differing and even contradictory orders and advice on how to begin the new school year. This is especially true for districts located within the boundaries of multiple city or county jurisdictions that may not agree on how to respond to the pandemic. As noted in a statement issued today, ATPE urges the state to provide clearer direction and leadership to help schools decipher these orders and guidelines.

“ATPE recognizes that COVID-19 has created fluid situations that demand frequent updates and revisions to plans. However, with multiple directives and guidance being issued by different branches and levels of government, it is no surprise that school leaders and educators are frustrated. The state should do everything in its power to protect the lives of Texans and support a safe and productive learning environment, not create needless confusion.”

As additional developments occur and guidance from government officials continues to change, ATPE encourages educators to visit our COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page for answers to frequently asked questions, which we will continue to update.

Meet the candidates in TX House District 134

Election Day is Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

Find out where the candidates stand on public education issues. Click the links below to view their profiles, featuring responses to the ATPE Candidate Survey (where available), voting records of incumbent legislators, additional information, and links to the candidates’ own websites.

Texas House District 134

Meet the candidates in TX House District 132

Election Day is Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

Find out where the candidates stand on public education issues. Click the links below to view their profiles, featuring responses to the ATPE Candidate Survey (where available), voting records of incumbent legislators, additional information, and links to the candidates’ own websites.

Texas House District 132

Meet the candidates in TX House District 112

Election Day is Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

Find out where the candidates stand on public education issues. Click the links below to view their profiles, featuring responses to the ATPE Candidate Survey (where available), voting records of incumbent legislators, additional information, and links to the candidates’ own websites.

Texas House District 112

Meet the candidates in TX House District 66

Election Day is Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

Find out where the candidates stand on public education issues. Click the links below to view their profiles, featuring responses to the ATPE Candidate Survey (where available), voting records of incumbent legislators, additional information, and links to the candidates’ own websites.

Texas House District 66

Meet the candidates in TX House District 67

Election Day is Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

Find out where the candidates stand on public education issues. Click the links below to view their profiles, featuring responses to the ATPE Candidate Survey (where available), voting records of incumbent legislators, additional information, and links to the candidates’ own websites.

Texas House District 67

Meet the candidates in TX House District 92

Election Day is Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

Find out where the candidates stand on public education issues. Click the links below to view their profiles, featuring responses to the ATPE Candidate Survey (where available), voting records of incumbent legislators, additional information, and links to the candidates’ own websites.

Texas House District 92